Race and sport


WASHINGTON -- Some say that professional sports tell a lot about the state of race relations in America. Well, what do you make of these observations that I made just this week?

At one point Monday night, the Green Bay Packers had 11 black players in their defensive lineup -- an extraordinary sight given the fact that only in 1946 were blacks allowed back into pro football.

A white running back has become scarce in the National Football League, raising questions about what happened to the likes of Red Grange, "Crazy Legs" Hirsch and John Riggins. But of the 20 top-rated quarterbacks in the NFL, only one is black: Rodney Peete of the Philadelphia Eagles, and he is injured and out of action.

Watching the Baltimore Orioles against the New York Yankees, and the Atlanta Braves against the St. Louis Cardinals, it seemed incredible that they had so many superstars "of color" -- American blacks, and black and brown stalwarts from Central and Carl T. Rowan

South America. They symbolized a social revolution from a lily-white American pastime of half a century earlier.

Tiger Woods, the young black sensation, has had the greatest start of any golf professional ever, winning $518,794 in just six tournaments, or $86,465 per event. Yet, he is the lone black among the top 200 money winners on the Professional Golfers' Association tour, where Japan's representation is triple that of black America.

Several National Basketball Association teams are gearing up for a new season with all-black starting teams -- a remarkable development given the fact that it was not until 1951 that the NBA admitted its first black players, Chuck Cooper, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton and Earl Lloyd.

My observation is that for team sports, the drive to win has overwhelmed most of the bigotry. But for individual competitions, as in golf and tennis, race and class still circumscribe opportunities to participate, let alone excel.

Most children get a chance to learn baseball, basketball and football from elementary school through college. Their level playing field is altered only slightly by a reluctance to hire black coaches and managers, and even that bias is fading.

A fan-drawing freak

The fact that Tiger Woods is almost a fan-drawing freak tells us that the worst bigotry remains in the sports that are controlled by the "elite" Americans -- the richest, supposedly best educated people who dominate the country clubs, and who remain bent on showing that if they want social apartheid enough to pay for it, then they can have it.

A small furor arose recently over a Nike advertisement saying that Mr. Woods can't play on a lot of golf courses in America because of his race.

True, only a few clubs would defiantly reject a worldwide sensation who can drive a golf ball 300 yards -- straight. But most clubs do reject millions of black families with youngsters of great golf and tennis potential, solely because of racism.

You ask whether Tiger Woods and the fortune he is making will lure black youngsters onto golf courses in great numbers? Probably not, because golf is a costly sport not readily available to the poorer masses of any race.

You ask when golf and tennis will change as baseball did with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, football did with Marion Motley and Claude "Buddy" Young, and basketball did with Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor? Probably never. Or not until elementary and high schools in all cities and towns form golf and tennis teams, providing them with places to play. And that is not feasible.

Still, we must hope that the next 50 years will produce for golf and tennis something approaching the incredible social progress that the last 50 years have brought to our most popular team sports.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/18/96

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